Star Trek was the brainchild of Gene Roddenberry. He wanted to offer the networks something that he could have some fun with. So he pitched a science fiction western, or as he put it, a “wagon train to the stars” but produced The Cage instead. It was brilliant, but viewed by those in charge as “too cerebral”. (We’ll be talking about this episode in due course!) But the network execs did something unheard of: they gave Roddenberry a second chance.
After the networks turned down The Cage, we had a real scifi-western with The Man Trap. Complete with desert settings and even a laser ricochet (because that makes sense), our first introduction to Kirk and Bones is not the most flattering. First, Kirk really knows how to rub in a break up, handing McCoy weeds and telling him women expect flowers. He even mocks Bones for thinking Nancy is attractive, calling her a “handsome woman”. He could have just gone all Austin Powers at that point: “It’s a man, baby!” McCoy finds his ex-girlfriend in the hallway, takes her into his room, then takes sleeping pills (which I’m pretty sure were just Red Hots; a cinnamon candy here in the US) and dozes off right in front of her. And Spock demonstrated 23rd century fighting with his double-fisted face punching. It’s both slower and less effective!
On top of that, this is the first time we’re seeing Kirk in command of the ship and his big mission: a routine medical exam. What is that exactly? Do starship captains make house calls? And for Kirk’s first on-screen command we get a death count of no fewer than 4 crewman. The first death in classic Trek is a blue shirt! Color me amazed! (McCoy is a brilliant doctor uttering his first “He’s dead, Jim!”) Second death: another blue shirt. Third death: a yellow shirt. 4th death: some dude in a black shirt with a white astronaut suit on. I don’t know how to classify him, but I’m guessing black shirt.
We get some clues about the other members of the cast in this story. Uhura is Swahili and goes for men who speak her language. She also gets bored at her post. Sulu likes botany and raises plants that look suspiciously like hands. Janice Rand doesn’t like being gawked at and knows how to take care of herself: “why don’t you go chase an asteroid”. (I swear there will be a time I can use that line on someone. If not that one, how about Kirk’s “Stop thinking with your glands!”) Kirk doesn’t like mysteries; they give him a belly ache (unlike B5’s G’Kar, who gets headaches from them!) And if we’re attentive, we see that Spock’s injury leaves green blood on his forehead.
But with all the things we can make fun of, we can’t knock a few things. The technology shows Spock wearing futuristic ear pods. Eat your heart out Apple; that’s future design right there! Truth serum exists… or at least the threat of it does. And being shot by a stun gun drops your normal voice (45rpm) down to a slower speed (33rpm) until you clear your throat. And coffee is allowed on Starship bridges. Alright, that ended up going into the realm of mockery too. So what was there about this slow, talky, wagon train to the stars?
For me, it was the M113 monster, also referred to as the Salt Vampire. It comes down to a right to survive, which is explored through the dialogue and it makes an immense difference to me. I felt the creature absolutely had a right to survive and with Crater, on the planet, it was succeeding admirably. It had the company of a man and that man took care of it. Kirk’s involvement is the reason for the death of 4 crewmen, Crater himself and ultimately the creature! It devasted me again watching them kill it. It was terrified on the ship and just needed to eat. The fact that it was the last of its kind means McCoy commits genocide when he killed it, too. Was he ever held accountable for it? No and it makes me sick! It’s amazing I ever loved these characters. And then Kirk wraps the episode pondering the buffalo. It’s a sad and bleak ending … and thankfully not like most of the series. While I enjoy the episode, it’s because of that sad-looking and unique creature that died alone and afraid on a Starship. I will always remember the Salt Vampire with fondness, despite the deaths it caused. ML
The view from across the pond:
There are 200g of salt in the human body. It’s funny what information you end up googling when you watch science fiction. There’s always something to spark the interest. But there you go, the plot of this episode of Star Trek does actually make sense, if you can conceive of a planet that doesn’t have any salt but can support life.
To backtrack a little, I suppose I should explain what we are doing here, at least from my point of view. You will have already read Mike’s article about this episode (look up!) and he is a Trek fan who has watched all this before. I am also a fan of Star Trek, but I am not a fan of Star Trek. Confused? Well, I’m a lot younger than Mike, so I grew up watching The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager. That was the era of Trek that I loved. The original series never appealed to me. I did try watching a couple of episodes, which were supposedly the best that the original series had to offer, and thought they were absolute rubbish. But I had a similar gut reaction to the first few episodes of Babylon 5, and I have been enjoying going on that journey with Mike, so I was keen to repeat our dual-review experiment with another series that is almost entirely new to me, but is one that Mike enjoys. That way you get the same deal again: Mike’s expert analysis and my newbie views.
My immediate first impression is that I may have judged this series unfairly based on what I have seen before, as this was actually a very entertaining opening episode. It’s a bit puzzling because it really doesn’t feel like an episode to introduce a new series. It feels more like a mid-season filler episode, with the characters already established. But as the episode progressed I realised that I was getting to know and like the characters and that the writer was actually introducing each one very competently, without doing any of the usual things you would expect from a writer introducing a cast of characters for the first time. I was impressed.
The story itself was a fairly run-of-the-mill alien shape-shifter plot, with some fairly weak dramatic irony for the first half of the episode (dramatic irony should not rely on the characters being stupidly unobservant and failing spectacularly to join all the obvious dots, as it does here). Once the action shifted from the Planet of Polystyrene Blocks to the Enterprise, the episode really kicked into gear, with “Nancy” taking on different forms, including McCoy, although the story did rely on nobody doing the obvious thing and reporting a crewman behaving in an odd and threatening manner. Maybe they are just used to that on the Enterprise, the ship of the future where sexual harassment in the workplace is still a thing.
“How about that.”
“Yeah, how would you like to have her as your own personal yeoman?”
Pwoarrr, get a load of that chick, 1960s crewmen of the future. It’s like she’s got an entire woven basket on her head. As a vision of the future, there were some aspects that seemed more likely. They’ve got their flip up phones with them (they might come back, you never know) and their flat screens are at least a bit flatter than the television we had in my house in the 80s. They have ray guns capable to destroying the middle pillar of polystyrene Stonehenge, and the top stones just stay there, so there are some strong glues in the future too. I was less convinced by the ear torch though:
As I said, I’ve not seen more than a couple of episodes of classic Trek in the past, and that was many years ago, but I’m going to take a wild stab in the dark about things we are going to see a lot of, so let’s start a list, because we all love a list. So, ladies and gentlemen (oh, sorry, just gentlemen, as we’re boldly going just where no man has gone before – the women must have been here already), I present our Trek Tally of the week:
Screaming woman #1
Minor crewman death #1, #2, #3 and #4
What, no attempt at mouth-to-mouth first?
“A little less mouth Darnell.”
“Ship’s surgeon McCoy and myself are now beaming down to the planet’s surface.”
…and another bloke we’re not going to mention because he’s about to die. I can’t help it, I like this series already. I like McCoy’s muppet plants, I like the completely random pictures in the end credits, I like the way an alien in Star Trek who needs salt does anything other than ask for salt. I even like Spock’s ear torch. I’m surprising myself as I type this, but I think I’m going to actually enjoy this “five year mission”. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Star Trek: Charlie X